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Shields and Brooks on Economy’s Moves, Obama’s Trip

Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh the news of the week, including what new unemployment numbers say about the economy, tough talk on the auto industry and President Obama's trip to Europe.

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    And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Really interesting report just now by Paul Solman. Let's talk about the economy. Mark, there are some economists who are going around now saying maybe we're seeing the bottom of this recession, maybe there are a few glimmers of hope. And then you get these terrible unemployment numbers today.

    What are people to believe?

    MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Well, I think the real test always is unemployment. That's been the standard in the United States. In Germany, it's been inflation, was their seminal experience as a nation economically. It's unemployment in this country.

    And what we're seeing, Judy, is the unemployment continuing unabated. I mean, just take, for example, manufacturing jobs. Since Ronald Reagan was president, the United States has lost 6.9 million manufacturing jobs.

    Now, manufacturing jobs are not only highly paid, they provide benefits, they provide health insurance. That's over a third of the total manufacturing jobs we had. And those are concentrated in the Midwest of the country, in states like Michigan and Ohio and Indiana.

    And the fear is that we will not return to normal unemployment, what's considered normal, 5 percent, for four years. And, you know, there are isolated encouraging signs, like factory orders being up or house sales improving. But the unemployment numbers just continue, continue.


    How do you see it?

    DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, it's the most concrete measure of how people are reacting to the recession, how they're being treated. But it's not the best predictor, as we've heard.

    And I've spoken to economists within the administration who think that, for a few months, we really had a sense of freefall, and now we've sort of hit the curve. And so the question is, does the curve come up V or does it stretch out? Nobody expects a V, but is it a U or a really elongated U? And nobody really knows the answer to that.

    But there is a sense that — I think there's a little growing optimism on Wall Street. And I would say, if you measure the economics community, there's certainly an increasing optimism there. There's increasing optimism in the White House, but that will not affect the unemployment rate.

    I happened to have a meeting with the head of state from another country whose economists study the U.S. economy very closely. And we said, "What do you honestly think the unemployment rate will top out at here?" And he said, "Oh, well over 10 percent."

    So that's a long stretch. And I've heard much longer than four years before we get back to sort of the natural unemployment rate.


    Well, and the other thing — we saw it in Paul's piece — is that we're seeing not simply companies laying off workers, freezing payments, stopping 401(k) contributions, cutting back on hours, forced furloughs, reduction in salaries.

    So, I mean, the unemployment is the most dramatic and certainly the most human number. And what's interesting is, it's really hitting men. Men are being laid off in greater numbers than women. I mean, women don't…


    Which is a new thing.


    A new thing, and women don't earn as much, obviously, as men have. But there's a potential for sort of an explosiveness here in the social order with men.


    I think that is the crucial question, because first it's hitting men. It's hitting people with high school degrees. And I think we heard about that earlier in the program. I think I read today the college grad unemployment rate is about 4.5 percent. So it's really hitting people without that.

    And then the final thing to be said is, it's not elastic. We don't come back to the economy we had before the recession. The jobs that are being lost, a lot of them are gone forever and their sectors are gone forever.

    And so the economy that emerges after a recession is totally different. And so the question will be, what political effect?

    And in Europe, they have mass marches already. We don't have that here yet. But they have mass marches sort of without a political agenda. But if we have a couple years like that, an agenda will emerge.